For starters, Payton has been embraced by some of jazz's elder statesmen, beginning with his tenure in legendary drummer Elvin Jones' Jazz Machine. From there, Payton has played with a dizzying array of luminaries, in a wide range of styles. He's gotten funky with Hammond B-3 master Jimmy Smith, played bebop with influential bassist Ray Brown, and won a Grammy award for his storied album collaboration with the late Doc Cheatham, a project that firmly established Payton as a master of New Orleans traditional jazz.
Besides his work as a sideman, Payton quickly blossomed into a bandleader and composer, and signed a major-label record deal with Verve Records in the early '90s. Gumbo Nouveau, the title of his second album, offers a window into Payton's creative process. On that album, Payton recast standards like "When the Saints Go Marching In" with his own molding. He's deeply respectful of his New Orleans roots, the roots of New Orleans music, and the roots of jazz, and at the same time, he's always been eager to bring his own fresh approach to his art, moving forward while still honoring the past. That approach has become one of Payton's hallmarks, in evidence on other projects like the album Fingerpainting, where Payton offered his interpretation of Herbie Hancock compositions.
In 2001, Payton took his artistic mindset of forging the past with the future to new heights with the album Dear Louis, a tribute to Louis Armstrong. In a year when bouquets for New Orleans' most famous son flowed around every corner, Payton's Armstrong homage stood out for its willingness to approach a musical icon with innovative enthusiasm. Using an 11-piece ensemble, Payton introduced new harmonies into "Potato Head Blues," gave "Tight Like This" a wistful twist, and added diverse percussion elements to "Hello Dolly." He enlisted Dr. John and Dianne Reeves to add their special touches, and organist Melvin Rhyne brought a whole new color palette to Payton's choices from the Armstrong canon. Having his father play bass was practically the icing on the cake.
As expected, Payton's trumpet playing was dazzling -- especially on a faithful run through Armstrong's legendary introduction to "West End Blues" -- but he pulled an unexpected card out of the deck, making his vocal debut on "You Rascal You" and "I'll Never Be the Same." That decision speaks volumes about Payton's willingness to take chances in his art, and Payton didn't just take that leap in the confines of the recording studio; he sang throughout the year on bandstands in New Orleans and across the country, bringing his original concept of a Louis Armstrong tribute to life.
For that achievement, and continuing to bring New Orleans culture into the national spotlight in a creative and positive manner, the Big Easy Entertainment Awards takes great pride in honoring Nicholas Payton as the 2002 Entertainer of the Year.